Reflections from 2011 – Is Employee Engagement Still a Myth?

Tenerife - Mount Teide & Roques de Garcia in the WinterContinuing further along with another blog post from the series of articles on “Reflections from 2011“, I thought I would go ahead and spend a few minutes today musing about what I still think was one of the main key terms, within the Social Enterprise space, that most of us got exposed to, and talked extensively through a good number of rather interesting and enlightening articles and publications throughout last year and that I feel would continue to come along rather strongly during the course of 2012 as well. Probably, because we are not done with it yet, but, most possibly, because we need to shift gears with it. Why? Well, so far, we haven’t done good enough with it, despite the various claims we may have been exposed to over the course of time, and we are running out of time and pretty quick! Of course, I’m talking about Employee Engagement or, in other words, how do you keep your employees motivated to excel at what they already do, driven by their distinctive passions, purpose and meaning?

You may be wondering why I mentioned above that we are running out of time on this critical concept of Employee Engagement, right? Well, let’s see it with a couple of good examples. How about this recent, rather worrying, study on how “A Third Of Employees Are Ready To Quit” or how a good percentage of today’s workforce continues to feel more disengaged with what they do than ever before, as they no longer feel the passion for their work nor their job(s)? Or how another study finds out how “One Third of Employers Have Disciplined Employees Using Social Media“? Or take this other, even more interesting and intriguing, study, where it’s demonstrated how more and more employers are no longer trusting their employees to do their work. Or, another one where work inequalities are reaching alarming levels close to disengage them for good and with no point of return. Yes, the examples keep piling on and on and on and I am sure you folks have got your favourites out there as well.

The reality is that Employee Engagement still remains a critical success factor for most employers and large corporations, and small businesses, too!, and we are running out of time because we are not doing a very good job at it at all. Quite the opposite. Yes, I know, we have seen, or been exposed, to a good number of really good articles that talk extensively about how to keep your employees, i.e. your knowledge workers, motivated to do their best and keep growing further in their career aspirations, contributions, purpose, meaning, etc. etc. without losing track of the business revenues, which is what most corporations care about nowadays anyway (Always have, I am afraid!). Yet, we keep failing drastically, and rather miserably, in achieving that long term goal of keeping employees motivated and all of that due to a very simple reason that most organisations seem to keep ignoring or neglecting big time: we consistently don’t ask them what they really want!

Indeed, that simple! Employee Engagement has always been a concept driven top down by corporations and their executives, who keep wondering how do they keep their employees motivated to go the extra mile without asking for much in return. What can they do to entice their knowledge workers to keep thriving and shining at what they already do well, which eventually is going to provide more business revenue, better customer satisfaction by delighting their clients and, hopefully, happier employees, without having to spend perhaps too much cash on rewards, incentives or whatever else so that it doesn’t go out of proportion. See? That’s exactly the problem! That kind of mentality where we are inspiring our knowledge workforce to compete against each other for those rewards, for those incentives, as individuals, as treasure hunters, where you try to do your outmost just to stay on top, annihilating everyone else around you. It’s part of that legacy corporate culture we have inherited from the 20th century and which we don’t seem to be too keen on getting rid of it, probably because it perhaps keeps nurturing the main corporate system that feeds it rather nicely backwards as well: money, greed and power.

I mean, can you imagine an entire workforce earning just as much as the CEO and his / her corporate executives? Or having that same amount of power at the same time as a group, network, community, where traditional management is no longer the one ruling but instead a new kind of leadership would be required? Obviously, not! Which corporation could sustain that? The reality though is that mentality is what’s keeping us away from “Designing a beautiful business“, as my good friend, Esko Kilpi, put together on a superb blog post just recently that I strongly encourage you all to go ahead and read further on what it would entail to reach that mantra of a beautiful business that he envisions amazingly accurate, and very nicely done!, and not too far away from today’s corporate environment. At least, for some businesses out there.

Another interesting read to provoke that shift away from that industrial model of recognising your employees with that individual competitive environment of cash, and whatever other tangible incentives, and move into a much more accurate, relevant, pertinent, purposeful and perhaps very much needed networked, interconnected and community-driven approach would be the excellent article “The Philosophy of Motivation” put together by Greg Satell where you will be able to find precious little golden nuggets like this one very relevant to the whole conversation of how to approach it when wanting to keep your knowledge workers motivated:

“[...] treating people with dignity means treating them as ends in themselves, rather than as simply means. [...] motivation is much more about intrinsic rewards than extrinsic rewards. Motivated people join an organization in good faith and expect to find meaning in their work, instead they get an incentive program. No wonder they get discouraged

Greg’s description of the shift from the industrial age to the passion economy is just brilliant, too!, with magical quotes like this one: “In the industrial age, value was created by harnessing energy. In the passion economy, value is created through superior design“. Like I said, a highly recommended read to help differentiate what’s at stake over here.

The challenge is out there for everyone though. As we move into another exciting and rather thrilling new year, it would be the perfect time to shift gears and start thinking about “Employee Engagement” not just from the top down in any and every organisation, but also from the bottom up! The good thing is that we are not alone! We don’t have to reinvent the wheel and wonder how we are going to get things started and make that shift happen. We are not starting from scratch and it would be silly to fool ourselves, if we believe it’s a whole lot harder than what it actually is. As a good starting point, we need to lower down the center of gravity and the decision power, starting by trusting more our very own employees, so that we get to find out what they really think; continuing further by discovering together different ways to keep rockstar employees happy, because whether we like it or not, they are the major driving force that gets everyone else excited wanting to jump into the bandwagon by following their true passion, which is the work they are already doing and excelling at!

I strongly believe that, at the end of the day, we would ALL be rather amazed and very pleasantly surprised to find out from those employees that, for them, it’s not all about the money, or the salary raises or whatever other cash, hard incentives. It’s a whole lot more than just that! We are talking about people in here, and as people do business with other people, there is a great chance that it will all be about fostering the right working environment where people are, AND feel, treated like people. Just what they are. An end in themselves, as Greg put it beautifully in an earlier article I mentioned above.

It’s all about finding ways to motivate your knowledge workforce to finally help you understand fully that this is all way beyond just thinking that money will do. Don’t take me wrong, money is good! It pays your bills and gives you an opportunity to enjoy a fulfilling life, but there is more to it. In fact, a whole lot more to it. And, like I said, we won’t need to start from scratch. In fact, there has been plenty of rather fascinating and thought-provoking research in this area, like Jack Wiley, executive director of the Kenexa High Performance Institute, recently wrote over at “Give employees what they really want” and where he talks about R.E.S.P.E.C.T., i.e. the main topics to cover, as an organisation, to keep your employees motivated and bring in Employee Engagement into the 21st century modus operandi of the new workplace, away from the industrial era:

  • Recognition
  • Exciting work
  • Security of employment
  • Pay
  • Education and career growth
  • Conditions
  • Truth

Please do go ahead and read further on Jack’s insights for each and everyone of those items to see what lies ahead. Certainly, a good challenge for all of us, as I have mentioned above. It’s not going to be easy either, for sure. But no-one said it would be. It’s actually what’s at stake for all of us who would want to design those beautiful businesses that Esko mentioned over in his blog post. That’s what makes it the most exciting of challenges. It’s one we can all contribute and make it happen eventually. It’s our way out to define the workplace of the future and there is probably not a better way of doing it than reverting Employee Engagement into what really matters, as Esko concludes beautifully with this gem:

The years with the Internet have proven that we are capable of working together competitively/cooperatively, building social communities that many would some time ago have dismissed as impossible dreams. Thus we don’t yet have a good idea of what cannot be done by connected people working together in new ways. Changes in existing organizations and the evolution of new ones will have characteristics in common. Just as natural systems like the human body are not vertical hierarchies with each part superior to another in ascending linear order, organizations of the future will not be structured that way. This is not to say that all present industrial organizations are doomed but our models to describe the world around us are. We need a new vocabulary beyond the models of industrial production and separatist, mechanistic concepts of a corporation

Yes, indeed, we probably need a new vocabulary, but I suspect that along with that new vocabulary we would also need a new way of thinking, a new way of working where employees, through their trusted networks and social communities own the corporation, just as much as the latter owns them. That’s when engagement will take a new meaning. The one we have all been waiting and anticipating for all along. For all of us, not just for the few we already know who they are…

Are you ready to own your beautiful business? If the answer is “Yes!”, you better start working your magic to help make employee engagement no longer a myth, but today’s corporate reality. We very much need it. And fast!

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